AMS Spring 2023

Lab 3D Prints E. coli Ink for Research into Biofilms

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Some of the most fascinating and/or shocking developments in 3D printing over the past decade have involved the application of biomimicry: the creation of machines, materials, or systems whose designs are inspired directly by biological or ecological phenomena. A recent study, led by Anne S. Meyer — associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester — in collaboration with a team at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, constitutes a perfect example of how biomimicry is being applied in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. The study, the results of which were published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology, involves the engineering and production of synthetic versions of biofilms, using a single-nozzle bioprinter designed by Rochester graduate student Ram Gona.

Image courtesy of University of Rochester

A biofilm is an agglomeration of multiple kinds of bacteria, which, when brought into close proximity with one another, create a network. The relevance to human beings is that these networks of bacteria, once created, often remain on the surfaces on which they’ve formed. This is a huge encumbrance to be dealt with, especially in the medical field, but truly also in any industry where hygienic standards must be particularly stringent. (And these days, of course, that’s getting to be just about every industry.) The main problem with biofilms is that they prove resistant to many of the drugs and disinfectants designed for simple bacteria.

In a comment for a press release about her team’s study on the University of Rochester website, Professor Meyer said, “This paper shows that our engineered biofilms can behave like native biofilms in many ways — including displaying emergent drug resistance — making them good model systems for anti-biofilm drug development.”

Image courtesy of University of Rochester

Specifically, the team of researchers created “bio-ink” made of E. coli bacteria, printed it onto an LB-agar plate, then, after a week, combined the E. coli/algae mixtures with sodium citrate. The plates were 3D-scanned and photographed under electron microscopes both before and after the sodium citrate was applied. A number of experiments were then conducted to test the stability of the solutions. As Meyer noted, the study concluded that the 3D-printed concoctions mimic their naturally-occurring counterparts closely enough to merit further use in studying the behavior of biofilms.

Like bacteria in general, biofilms can be both harmful and beneficial. The negative effects have already been mentioned; but certain other biofilms are able to dissolve toxins and pollutants, which holds promise in areas such as bioremediation and treatment of wastewater. The broader implication of this study is that it emphasizes just how quickly all scientific investigation into bioprinting is advancing, past any possible ability of current regulatory regimes to control the field.

This state-of-affairs is probably unsustainable, so the more this type of research continues, the more inevitable it becomes that 3D printing as “an” industry will be divided into differing levels of governmental oversight. Rather than one industry, then, it is likely to manifest as several distinct industries, each one with a different form of regulation involved. The alternative to this is that E. coli bio-ink may someday be accidentally produced in the same lab bioprinting meat, which is not a future anyone really wants to contemplate.

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